Wayne Rooney is ready to “take off” and fire Manchester United to the Premier League title, says Sir Alex Ferguson. The manager is backing 25-year-old Rooney, who scored twice against Aston Villa on Tuesday, to find some long-awaited consistency in the final months of the season.
Rooney is included in United’s travelling party for this weekend’s fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux, with the Reds protecting a five-point Premier League lead. Ferguson is likely to pair the former Everton striker with Dimitar Berbatov in attack; the Bulgarian, who has 19 goals in all competitions, was yesterday named Barclays Premier League Player of the Month.
Indeed, Ferguson can call on an almost fully fit squad for the trip – Rafael da Silva returns after suffering a concussion at Blackpool and Darren Fletcher is fit for selection despite coming off against Villa. Park Ji-Sung is available but is unlikely to feature after the South Korean played six matches at the Asian Cup.
“Rafael should be OK,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“He has trained. He should be available against Wolves. I don’t think we’ve got any other injuries from Tuesday night. With Fletcher, we’ll assess him today. What happened is that his eye closed and he couldn’t see the ball properly. So we had to take him off. I’m sure he’ll be OK.”
Ferguson will also be without Gary Neville, who retired on Thursday, although there is no guarantee that the defender would have made the Scot’s squad anyway. The United manager was effusive in his praise of the 35-year-old this week and hopes that the defender will stay part of the “Old Trafford family” in a coaching capacity.
Anderson could come into the side, with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs rotated, and Gabriel Obertan is in contention for one of United’s wide berths despite rumours that the Frenchman put in a transfer request this week.
Yet it is Rooney to whom Ferguson now looks, with the striker scoring just his fifth and sixth goals of a frustrating season against Villa. Win or draw at Molineux and United will complete a club record 30 games without Premier League defeat, in a season of unusual mediocrity from both team and star player.
“Hopefully – and there’s every chance with scoring the kind of goals he scored the other night – that he’ll take off,” said Ferguson of Rooney.
“Goalscorers are like that and hopefully that’s what we’re going to see with Wayne. He’s got 14 league games, European games and FA Cup games – he could easily get a good average.
“What Wayne has always had is a fantastic energy to play in a game. He’s always committed to doing his best. The bonus is, as we saw the other night, he got two goals.
“Last season he was very consistent, but in the previous years he has scored in clutches of five or six games. But if he can get the consistency of last season then we are going to benefit from that.”
The Irishman is hardly aided by injuries to key players, with Stephen Hunt suffering from a calf strain, and Michaels Kightly and Mancienne out with knee trouble. However, Jamie O’Hara could make his début for the club after joining on loan from Tottenham Hotspur.
Indeed, complacency could be United’s biggest threat against the Midlanders, who lost heavily to Liverpool last week. And with a Champions League double-header to come against Marseille before games against Chelsea and Arsenal in March, United’s players will be wary of focussing elsewhere this weekend.
Still, Rooney says the United squad is aware of the renewed Chelsea threat, who strengthened with £70 million worth of new talent on transfer deadline day. Despite making similar losses in the past financial year the Londoners’ owner Roman Abramovich appears to have rediscovered his lust for the club over the winter.
“Certainly we haven’t written them off,” Rooney told MUTV.
“They’re a strong team and we know if anyone’s capable of going on a good run, it’s them. But we know we have to just do our job and we can’t really look at what they’re doing.
“We just have to concentrate on what we’re doing. It’s really up to us now where the title goes, and hopefully we can win that back.”
In that is the rub. Unbeaten in 29 domestic league matches – 24 of them this season – the title is surely now United’s to lose. Five points clear of Arsenal, eight of Manchester City and ten ahead of Chelsea, Ferguson’s team head into the Spring in a commanding position.
The side is in good form too, playing some of the best football this season against Villa.
Ferguson says that just 30 more points 14 games will win United the title. That United has won the last six matches against Wolves since a 1-0 Premier League defeat at Molineux seven years ago only bodes well.
Wolves – 451 – Hennessey; Elokobi, Berra, Stearman, Zubar; Jarvis, Henry, Jones, O’Hara, Hammil; Doyle. Subs from: Hahnemann, Craddock, Ward, Milijas, Ebanks-Blake, Fletcher, Mouyokolo, Vokes, Edwards.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Evans, Brown, Gibson, Owen, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, O’Shea, Scholes, Obertan, Hernández, Smalling, Giggs.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistant referees: Dave Bryan & Mick McDonough
Fourth official: Mike Jones
Wolves – LWLLLL
United – WWWWWW